Life without car

The car-free experiment that began unexpectedly in mid-October 2016 will soon end. We have been given the opportunity to buy a used Nissan Versa in good condition for a good price. In a few days, we will once again be the owners of a motorized vehicle.

Being without a car has sometimes been challenging and often revealing. After the collision last fall, we had to figure out how to get around and do what we needed to do by transit, on foot, and occasionally using a taxi. That was pretty easy for Sweetie, who doesn't drive. Her daily life was little changed. But for me, it was a bigger deal. I still wanted to get to the farmers market, to the Drive for my usual shopping, to North Burnaby for Cioffi's (best Italian store), and a few other places.

I did what I had to do. I learned the transit system much better, especially buses. I now know buses that will get me where I need to go that I was not even aware of before. I have run errands to places I didn't know I could get to without a car.

Shortly after the experiment began, I realized that hauling two cloth bags on my shoulders was becoming both difficult and painful. So I bought a two-wheeled shopping cart, a.k.a., a granny cart, which made a huge difference. Did you know that granny cart owners talk to other cart users, like dog owners? There is lot of discussion about wheels and durability and how much a cart can haul. Granny carts are not just for grannies! Sometimes the front of the bus gets rather crowded with them.

Using the cart is better than carrying bags on your shoulders, but the cart doesn't haul itself. And at first I was often trudging through nasty weather and over poorly cleared sidewalks. Sometimes I wished the cart had been a sled! I also became much more aware of curb ramps—well-designed, poorly designed, blocked (by snow, ice, unmindful people), and missing entirely—and of accessibility in general, especially at SkyTrain stations. There were times during the worst of the weather that I didn't think I could keep it up. But as a cook, I value fresh ingredients, so I persisted.

It seems to be good exercise. I hate working out and so haven't done it since I has a personal trainer, so walking has long been my main physical activity. I do most of my errands within my city on foot. And then transit use adds more walking, since stops are not always right where I need to go. And why wait for a #20 when I can walk on the Drive from the SkyTrain station to Napier Street before a bus comes by? Manoeuvering my cart when it's full, up hill and down dale, has increased my fitness and helped set my weight at a place that feels comfortable for me.

Going out in the evening sans car sometimes brings extra challenges. Transit service is less frequent, especially buses, especially on weekends. Sometimes we get home rather later than we would with a car. But we have still been going out quite a lot. We've toughened up, got used to waiting longer and waiting in crappy weather, and made sure to dress for it. Somehow we have got better at finding late buses. Our taxi usage seems to have gone down.

When we have a car again, will we go back to the status quo ante? We intend not to. Even though it's a long, multi-modal trip to Nat Bailey Stadium for the Winter Farmers Market, I would still rather go by transit with my cart than have to deal with parking over there. Parking is often a deterrent to increased vehicle usage. Another is traffic. Using transit takes more time, but not as much more than driving as you might think. And much as I like to drive on a highway, I have come to appreciate being conveyed through city traffic while I read or use my phone or just look around (especially if I'm on a route I haven't taken before).

The experiment taught us that some errands are pretty much impossible without a vehicle. We have bird feeders and we buy seed in large bags. The cart would not be able to carry enough to make the long trip to the store worthwhile. Sometimes we have to buy other things that are too large to carry. It's possible to bring an accumulation of glass jars and bottles, corrugated cardboard, metal, and Styrofoam to the recycling depot, but not easy. And you can't take a road trip without a motor vehicle—unless you are the kind of cyclist I never was and will never be.

Soon I will be able to haul guitar and amp and pedal board to a gig! That is, if I ever manage to set one up again.

Sweetie and I agree that we need a car less than we had thought. We plan to try to use the new one only when we truly need to. I imagine that occasionally we will go somewhere by car that we would have done on transit. But we live in an area with an extensive transit system, in a part of our city with several bus connections, and we're happy to take advantage of that.

Postscript: Owning a car and mostly using transit instead of driving is a bad combination. We are more aware of that now. We will be paying transit fares (or buying a monthly pass) while also carrying car insurance. That bit of convenience will more than double our transportation costs (without even factoring in gas and maintenance). Once I have atoned for my collision sin, we hope to sell the car and join a car co-op. The experiment showed us that car-sharing would really make sense for us.